Behind the Palestinian President's Peace Gamble

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Israel's Prime Minister Ehud Olmert knows that the most important political relationship of his office is the one with the occupant of the White House. That's why he agreed, this week, to indulge President Bush's insistence that Israel seek a negotiated agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas before moving ahead with plans to unilaterally redraw its border. After all, Olmert had actually campaigned on the promise of acting unilaterally to finalize Israel's borders, and he has made no secret that he sees Abbas as a lame duck. The Palestinian leader is not trusted by the democratically elected Hamas government, without whose consent no deal is credible, and he is pretty much ignored by as much as half of the rank-and-file of his own Fatah organization. Even at the height of his powers he had been unable to act against the armed wings of Hamas and Fatah, and his powers have dimmed considerably since then.

Still, Abbas is trying hard to remain relevant. And on Thursday, he appeared to take an all-or-nothing gamble, giving Hamas 10 days to agree to join him in endorsing a two-state solution based on Israel returning to its 1967 borders — which would mean giving up the lands occupied in the war of that year, including all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem — or else face a Palestinian referendum on the issue.

What the Palestinian showdown reveals, however, is that the obstacles to a negotiated solution are not simply the fact that Hamas now runs the Palestinian government or that armed groups have not been dismantled. While Abbas sees the basis for negotiations as the 1967 borders, Olmert's version of the border — as described by the route of the security wall he is in the process of completing — folds in the major Israeli settlement blocs on the West Bank, bissecting the territory and cutting it off from East Jerusalem. The fact that the Israeli negotiating position is so far from even the moderate Palestinian consensus suggests that such an agreement is unlikely, even if the two sides were brought to the table right now. In any case, it's no wonder Israel prefers a unilateral redrawing of boundaries, since it would certainly retain more West Bank territory than it would in any negotiated agreement. But a unilateral move to annex West Bank land is almost certain to be strongly rejected by almost all of the international community, putting the U.S. in an uncomfortable position.

Abbas is making a smart calculation that Hamas is less unified on its hostility to peace than its longstanding rhetoric would indicate, and he may be using the threat of a referendum over a negotiating position to exacerbate those divisions. Most polls show a solid majority of Palestinians backing the two-state option, and the proposed peace plan he put to Hamas was actually crafted by imprisoned leaders of both Fatah and Hamas, adding to its street credibility. So, while Hamas's leaders had hoped to put the issue of how it relates to Israel on the back burner while it got on with governing the Palestinian territories, international financial pressure on Hamas brought on by the U.S. and European blockade — and now Abbas's gambit — has forced them to address the question sooner than they would have liked. Their move, Friday, to withdraw the security forces they put on the streets in Gaza to challenge Fatah suggests Hamas is inclined to cool the temperature of intra-Palestinian rivalries.

Even before Abbas's challenge, Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh and some other Hamas leaders have been steadily moving toward some form of recognition of Israel within its 1967 borders, in line with the Arab League offer of peace in exchange for a return to those borders. "If Israel withdraws to the 1967 borders, peace will prevail," Haniyeh told the Israeli daily Haaretz earlier this week, offering a "long term cease-fire."

But Hamas leaders have also previously said that their willingess to adopt such a position will have little bearing on the situation, since Israel has no intention of withdrawing to those borders. Neither side wants to appear to be a spoiler, so each is usually willing to go through the motions, knowing full well they probably won't lead anywhere.

In that respect, Abbas may simply be looking to outflank Olmert by denying Israel the space to claim there is no Palestinian negotiating partner. But Olmert can comfortably agree to talk to Abbas, insisting that the Palestinian leader first implement his obligations under President Bush's "roadmap," which requires that the Palestinians dismantle the armed factions before any talk of borders can begin. It's a relatively safe bet that four to six months from now, Olmert will tell Bush that he gave it his best shot, but just couldn't make any progress with Abbas. At that point, when Olmert is looking for a green light on his unilateral withdrawal plan, Bush will have to decide whether to indulge his Israeli counterpart.